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‘Pune’s Covid-19 fatality rate will go down by 90 per cent if 40 lakh residents are vaccinated in next 30 days’

Sudhir Mehta, the President of Mahratta Chamber of Commerce Industries and Agriculture, speaks with The Indian Express as to how the Pune Platform for Covid-19 Response helped the district administration ramp up healthcare facilities to fight the second wave of the pandemic.

Written by Parthasarathi Biswas | Pune |
May 31, 2021 9:47:20 am
Sudhir Mehta is the the lead and coordinator of Pune Platform for Covid-19 Response and the President of Mahratta Chamber of Commerce Industries and Agriculture.

Pune has been one of the worst-hit districts in the country by the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. As cases spiked, so did the demand for medical oxygen and ventilators. When people were seen scrambling to meet this demand, the Pune Platform for Covid-19 Response (PPCR) stepped up its efforts to ramp up medical infrastructure in the district.

Called Mission Vayu, the platform flew in the required machinery and equipment from aboard. What started off as an initiative to help Pune soon took a national role, helping out other hospitals in the country as well. Sudhir Mehta, the lead and coordinator of Pune Platform for Covid-19 Response and the President of Mahratta Chamber of Commerce Industries and Agriculture, speaks about the initiative and the outcome of it.

How did Mission Vayu come into being? Pune Platform for Covid-19 Response has been acting as the bridge between public and private health infrastructure during the crisis. What pushed the team to start the initiative?

As the demand for oxygen and ventilators skyrocketed, we realized that the second wave was going to be disastrous as the fatality rate was substantially high. We immediately got in touch with leading doctors, intensivists and Covid task force members to understand the intensity and probability of critical cases. Subsequently, we connected with all our members (medical fraternity, NGO’s, corporates, and government representatives) and understood that there is a need to ramp up our medical infrastructure. Our one-point agenda was to have zero deaths due to unavailability of oxygen or resources in Pune.

In the process of equipment sourcing, I got in touch with an investment company Temasek Singapore which not only helped us locate the necessary equipment but also sponsored 50 per cent of the total cost. Initially, we had brought in 4,000 oxygen concentrators and 250 BiPAP ventilators for Pune and its surrounding areas. However, we soon started receiving requests from other districts of Maharashtra as well as other states.

A resident of an old-age home in Pune gets vaccinated. (Express Photo: Ashish Kale)

It is then that we decided to extend our support to 30 other districts of Maharashtra and various other states, including Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Karnataka and Jammu & Kashmir.

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Under Mission Vayu, we have donated 7,800 oxygen concentrators, 875 BiPAP ventilators, and 50,000 pulse oximeters across the country. Our endeavour has been supported by Temasek Foundation, ACT Grants, the Swasth Alliance and over 1000 donors and members of PPCR. Air India, Singapore Airlines, Olam International, Amazon India and Kerry Logistics have helped with the logistics needed to fly in and distribute these equipment.

What were the main takeaways from an initiative like Mission Vayu and did you face any bureaucratic red tape in the process?

Mission Vayu, which is a three-phased project with an estimated investment of Rs 100 crore, was planned, implemented and executed in less than 10 days since its launch. It is indeed a classic example of collaboration, coordinated action and direct communication.

According to me, a lot can happen if people are ready to have a dialogue. Dialogue or ‘samvād’ has been one of the key driving forces for the platform, and subsequently Mission Vayu. From conceptualization to procurement, everything was based upon communication.

As soon as we announced the initiative, we saw an overwhelming response from all corners to support our cause. This was primarily because we were probably the first ones to launch an initiative at such a massive scale, supporting the medical infrastructure at a time when almost every state and district was struggling to tackle the second wave of Covid-19.

Coming to the red tape part, I would actually like to highlight the support we received from the establishment. Our request to the Union Government to waive customs duty on oxygen and other related essential items was agreed upon within a day. Officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, and Air India were constantly in touch with us to extend their help and support.

Public infrastructure around the country is not as robust as it should be. While the Mumbai Model has been spoken about a lot during the current wave, Mission Vayu is something that has come out of Pune. Can this model be replicated elsewhere and if so, what are policy frameworks necessary for it?

Covid-19 has stretched the healthcare infrastructure of even the most developed countries. Given the population of our country, we were bound to face shortages. However, expanding the capacity of government-run facilities is the need of the hour. In Pune, 80 per cent of Covid facilities are supported by private hospitals.

Pune currently has the maximum number of Covid-19 beds and ventilator facilities in the country. The district has seen a 735 per cent rise in total bed capacity and a 450 per cent increase in ventilators as compared to last year. Today, Pune is able to cater to thousands of patients from rural and peripheral areas as well.

PPCR is a need-based, time-bound and pro bono initiative. Whoever wants to replicate this model must understand its meaning — supplementing the government’s efforts. The government’s limited abilities create gaps in the system. The civil society-led models need to fill those.

Any effort of replicating our model, for a similar or different cause anywhere else, may yield much better results.

Since last year, you have been working closely with the government in times of a national crisis. What have you learnt in the process?

For more than a year, we have continued to supplement the government’s efforts to mitigate the adverse effects of the pandemic. During this time, I have had an opportunity to interact and closely work with almost every ministry of the Central and state governments, and also with district administration offices. The response we have received has been extremely gratifying as all of them were very proactive and supportive.

Going forward, what changes do you believe are necessary to help address healthcare needs during a pandemic?

The worst part of this pandemic is its uncertainty. With vaccination being the safest bet to reduce case-fatality ratio, it is crucial that we expedite the inoculation drive. If we vaccinate all 18+ individuals with the first dose in Pune district, we will be able to reduce the severity of the infection and its consequential deaths.

Through this approach, we will be able to transform Pune to become India’s first Covid-death free city in 60 days. If the first dose is administered to about 40 lakh Pune citizens who are above 18 in the next 30 days, we will be able to free up hospital beds substantially and reduce the death rate by 90 per cent in the next 60 days.

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